If you've been noticing a lot more Ford Escort Wagons on the road these days, it's no illusion. The wagon has become the best-selling body style in Ford's ever-popular Escort line.
This doesn't mean the fashion pendulum has swung back to the '60s. Wagons remain niche vehicles with selective appeal. But in the case of the Escort, most folks simply can't pass up a good deal.
Which leaves just one question: What are the trade-offs for a rock-bottom price?
Most of today's Escorts are sold under Ford's One Price plan, meaning the number on the sticker is as nonnegotiable as a price tag in a department store. Don't worry - you won't have to dicker. With-out question, the Escort Wagon is the best bargain of the bunch. You get decent room and small-wagon versatility, and you save more than $1000 in the process.
Offered only in LX trim, our Escort Wagon had a ready-to-go price of $13,395, a number that applies to every Escort LX in the line - the 2-door hatchback and 4-door sedan as well as the wagon. For this class of vehicles, that qualifies as inexpensive by any calculation. But does inexpensive equate with good value?
That's always the question. And that's what we wanted to know about the Escort Wagon.
The Escort has undergone several styling revisions since its 1981 debut, and it now shares some mechanical and structural elements with the Mazda 323/Protege family. That's good company, but in terms of appearance the Escort just doesn't create much excitement - an Escort is an Escort is an Escort.
There's nothing wrong with this conservative design. It just lacks any real personality, something that can be said for the entire Escort line. Ford didn't take any chances with this look, so it's not as current as many of the Escort's competitors are, including the new-for-'95 Mazda Protege. And a redesigned Escort is still more than a year away.
On the other hand, it can be argued that the Escort looks more contemporary as a wagon than it does as a sedan.
Fatter 175/65 tires on 14-in. wheels, a '94 upgrade, give the Escort Wagon a more substantial look, as well as a little extra grip in cornering. And of course the whole understated package is very trim and tidy, as you'd expect of a car in this size class.
The Escort line has been brightened up for 1995 with five new exterior colors: Deep Iris, Coral Mist, Ultra Violet, Deep Forest Green and Silver Frost. All of these are clearcoat metallic finishes.
Even though the outside is familiar, a new wraparound instrument panel spiffs up the interior quite a bit.
The interior makes this car considerably more attractive from a safety point of view - the Escort joins the passive restraint mainstream in '95 with the addition of standard dual airbags and knee bolsters.
The new instrument panel is a marked improvement over older Escort designs, with an instrument cluster that's well laid out and easy to read. And we always appreciate having a tachometer.
Secondary controls are standard stalks - easy to reach, easy to operate.
The climate control system is another story. It's a stretch to reach, as are the audio controls. With their tiny push buttons, Ford sound systems are far from the industry's best. Operating the controls requires taking your eyes off the road, as well as a steady hand. There's definitely room for improvement here.
Our Escort's front bucket seats were roomy enough and provided good leg-room, although there was not a great deal of lateral support.
Even though the rear seats were cramped by adult standards, we'd rate the Escort's roominess as no worse than average among subcompacts. Our LX Wagon included 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks, which lent versatility to the cargo space.
And cargo space is a big plus for the Escort Wagon. With the rear seatback up, there's 30.6 cu. ft., with 38.9 in. between the rear wheel wells and more than 38.0 in. from floor to ceiling.
With the rear seats folded flat, the space expands to 66.9 cu. ft., which is best-in-class among subcompact wagons.
The rear hatch opening is wide and it's not much of a reach up to the cargo bed, making loading an easy chore.
Civilizing extras that went with our package included air conditioning and a higher grade of upholstery material.
Any time we put the Escort's pedal to the metal for passing or quick stoplight getaways, we kept asking each other the same question: Could you speak up a bit?
The Escort Wagon's 1.9-liter engine is tough and durable, but it's also noisy and not very peppy, particularly when it's mated to the optional 4-speed automatic transmission. Mazda's spirited 1.8-liter DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder, a much better engine, is available in the Escort line, but only with the sporty 2-door GT model.
The 1.9-liter just doesn't like high rpm operation, and it has a fair amount of vibration, particularly at idle.
There is one plus for the Ford 1.9-liter, and that's fuel economy. With EPA ratings of 25 mpg city/31 mpg hwy., the Escort Wagon will roll past a lot of gas stations before you have to stop. However, it takes the 5-speed manual transmission to make the most of this engine's fuel stinginess. With the automatic, mpg numbers fall off sharply.
We recommend the 5-speed, a crisp-shifter that makes this little wagon a lot more efficient, as well as fun to drive.
Fun-to-drive is an Escort strong suit. Its steering - power-assisted (versus the basic Escort's manual steering) in our test car - is precise with good road feel, and the car's responses are quick and lively. An athletic, sporty character is common to all Escorts, and the wagon is no exception. In fact, the wagon, with its heavier rear sway bar, is a touch handier than the basic sedan and hatchback.
We were also impressed with our wagon's tidy turning circle - just 31.5 ft. - which helps out in crowded parking lots.
The Escort's right-now handling is a plus in all-around driving, and it's a big advantage in avoiding accidents.
The trade-off for nimble handling is ride quality that may be a trifle stiff for some tastes and a certain amount of harshness on rough pavement. The suspension does an adequate job of handling big lumps and potholes, but it doesn't do very well with small, sharp bumps.
And in addition to engine noise, the Escort Wagon scores somewhat below average for wind noise at freeway speeds.
We also have to give the Escort Wagon's brake system a below-average rating. Although our test car's brake performance was adequate, the absence of anti-lock brakes (ABS) - even as an option - is a distinct minus.
ABS, along with 4-wheel disc brakes, is available only with the Escort GT.
Back to the original question: Is the Escort Wagon a good value? We'd answer with a cautious and qualified "yes."
The Escort Wagon is underpowered, and not as refined as competitors such as Toyota Corolla. And the absence of ABS is hard to understand.
But it's also hard to deny this car's value, particularly with dual airbags added for 1995.
Maybe that's why almost 50 percent of all Escort buyers are choosing the wagon.
It's much less expensive than its competitors, it has segment-leading cargo capacity, and there's a nice array of extras baked into its price. That's the essence of automotive value, after all, and the Escort Wagon definitely offers value.
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